How to Write A Novel

Writing in Paris

Author Max Barry gave an interview over on Aerogramme Writers’ Studio a few weeks ago on how to write a novel, and I found his 15 different suggestions comforting (full-disclosure: I’ve tried more than 10 of them!) and funny (“Method #7: You consume alcohol, narcotic, or caffeine before writing. Dude, those words just gush.”) The truth is, there is no one way to write a novel, and Barry himself admits as much, saying, “If there were a single method of writing great books, we’d all be doing it.” Instead, his 15 suggestions are all tried and true methods writers have employed, with pros and cons for each. Some of my personal favorites, both in terms of his advice and my own chosen methods:

1. The Word Target

What: You don’t let yourself leave the keyboard each day until you’ve hit 2,000 words.
Why: It gets you started. You stop fretting over whether your words are perfect, which you shouldn’t be doing in a first draft. It captures your initial burst of creative energy. It gets you to the end of a first draft in only two or three months. If you can consistently hit your daily target, you feel awesome and motivated.
Why Not: It can leave you too exhausted to spend any non-writing time thinking about your story. It encourages you to pounce on adequate ideas rather than give them time to turn into great ones. It encourages you to use many words instead of few. If you take a wrong turn, you can go a long way before you realize it. It can make you feel like a failure as a writer when the problem is that you’re trying to animate a corpse. It can make you dread writing.

6. The Immersion

What: You pull out the network cord, turn off the phone, and write in blocks of four hours.
Why: It eliminates distractions. You can relax knowing that you have plenty of time to write. It encourages thoughtful writing.
Why Not: You can wind up grinding. You can feel reluctant to start writing, knowing that such a huge block of time awaits.

11. The Jigsaw

What: You start writing the scenes (or pieces of scenes) that interest you the most, and don’t worry about connecting them until later.
Why: You capture the initial energy of ideas. You can avoid becoming derailed by detail. You make sure your novel revolves around your big ideas.
Why Not: It can be difficult to figure out how to connect the scenes after the fact. You need to rewrite heavily in order to incorporate ideas you had later for earlier sections. Your characters can be shakier because you wrote scenes for them before you knew the journey they’d make to get there.

If I’ve learned anything in this two+ year-long process, it’s that here are a thousand ways to write a novel, as evidenced by the list above. But there is only one way to not write a novel, and that is to just not write. As long as I’m writing, I’ll write this novel. In single sentences squeezed out of my early-morning brain on the bus, or in immersions, in jigsaws, or with word targets. The little milestones count just as much as the big ones.

Rue Honoré Chevalier (And an Excerpt from the First Draft)

Rue Honoré Chevalier

“I dance ballet,” Rose said.

“Oh, good. For a moment I was afraid you were going to say you were ‘modern.’”

“What’s wrong with modern dance?” Rose asked.

“I prefer ballet. It’s more refined and elegant, more restrained. Modern dance is just…” Sylvie’s hands were rolling around each other as she searched for the right word, “It’s a mess. All over the place.”

“Don’t you sell modern art?” Rose asked, smirking.

“Contemporary,” Sylvie said, correcting her. “And you’re attempting to make a connection, but I don’t see it.” Mirette had abandoned any pretense of subtlety and was now turned fully around in her chair, facing their conversation. She suddenly felt like a line judge at a tennis match. Rose, to her credit, had realized she’d been snared on a conversational tripwire, and was politely trying to backpedal.

“You know, contemporary art just feels very frenetic to me.” She would have been fine, if she’d left it at that, but she had to accompany her pronouncement with a hand gesture that mimicked an explosion. “I know I don’t know anything about it, but from an outsider, art like Pollock seems so sloppy.” Mirette reflexively winced, bracing herself for impact.

“Sylvie, don’t bother. Rose is hopeless when it comes to this subject. I’ve tried,” Mirette said, aiming for levity and landing on desperation. Sylvie set her glass down with more force than was necessary. Mirette could feel the air seep out of middle of the table. Even Andrés, who was never more attracted to his wife than when she was passionately discussing art, became suddenly fascinated by the dark red fabric that was draped across the ceiling, feeling that certain spars were best held without spectators. Antoine leaned forward slightly, an amused and expectant smile on his face.

“This is the problem with people these days,” Sylvie said to no one in specific. She then looked Rose squarely in her face, settling the full weight of her glare on her, and leaned forward on her crossed arms. “A Pollock is more like a ballet than you understand. There is nothing ‘sloppy’ about it. Each single drop of paint is the result of restraint and composition and subtle poise, even though it looks like a bunch of unintentional noise on a canvas to most people.” Mirette was a few seconds away from throwing herself in front of Rose, who was shrinking back in her chair so dramatically she was sure to end up on the floor with a final swoop. Mirette motioned to the waiter with a quick circle of her hand that another round of drinks were necessary.

“You either buy into it or you don’t. You either go into a museum or a gallery an open, receptive vessel, or you carry in with you all the preconceived notions about how contemporary art is ‘weird’ or unapproachable or indecipherable, and then of course all the art on the walls–”

“Or the floors,” Antoine added.

“Or the floors –a pile of wrapped candy, a bed strewn with crumpled paper and trash– makes no sense. If you stand in front of a Jackson Pollock and you’ve already decided it’s paint splatters, random and meaningless, then what else could it look like to you?”

“Why doesn’t anyone have this problem with, I don’t know, someone like Monet?” Rose asked.

“Because everyone thinks a Monet is beautiful because it is, but it’s also been universally agreed that it is beautiful and everyone knows it. There hasn’t been the same unanimity about the majority of the art from the last 40, 50 years. Yet.”

“You think there will be.”

“I don’t know. And that’s what makes it so exciting. That frenetic uncertainty is exciting. It’s all guesswork, based on how much you trust your taste. On how much clients trust my taste.”


I’m writing a novel. You can read more about that here.

Librarie (And an Excerpt From the First Draft)

Librarie des Alpes

“What are you going to read now?”

“Something with words,” Mirette said, smiling.

“Can you imagine if that’s how discerning I was in selecting art? ‘Something with paint.’ Though to be honest I think that’s how some galleries are doing it these days,” Sylvie said, sipping at her coffee. Her lipstick left a red semi-circle on the outside of the cup. “Why are you walking all that way? There are bookshops on this side of the river. Christ, there’s one next door.”

There was, it was true, no shortage of bookstores of varying sizes and inventories closer than crossing a bridge, into a different neighborhood[…]The bookshop a few doors away was painted a brilliant shade of blue, narrow inside, with books stacked to the ceiling in teetering, uneven stacks, with no immediately identifiable system of organization. The owner was a sweet older man who wore big sweaters and kept the door open year round (there seemed to be a cause and effect at play there), and had a sleeping cat in the window –it might have been taxidermied, Mirette thought one day; she’d never seen it move. Tiny bookstores and the challenges they presented –if she happened to be searching for a specific title and not just browsing for the sake of it, content to soak up the dusty, old book smell and the hushed, contemplative quiet that was inevitably shoved into the back corners of each small shop– were one of her greatest joys. Like museums, bookstores were reverential, a place of endless promise and potential, only they had the added benefit of rarely being crowded with tourists wielding giant cameras. She also appreciated that in bookstores, touching wasn’t against the rules. There were no shin-height barriers keeping you away from the books, no guards finger-wagging at you when you leaned too close; you were encouraged to pick up, to touch, to flip through (to sniff, even, as Mirette loved to do in the used bookstores. The smoky paper smell was almost too heady for her to take in without feeling dizzy and nostalgic for every place that particular volume had traveled, how many bedside tables it had rested on, how many shelves). It was a deliciously tactile and sensory event for her, going to bookstores, and she knew how strange that must make her seem.


I’m writing a novel. You can read more about that here.

So About That Novel…

My desk

I have been writing this novel now since somewhere around August of 2012. (Pause here for wide-eyed disbelief that time moves so terrifyingly quickly.) To recap: a private sales representative steals 14 paintings from Sotheby’s in Paris, and the story unfolds around each painting, focusing on the relationship between four main characters. (I think. Fourteen is proving to be a lot of paintings). Between August of 2012 and April 2014, before I left for Paris, I had managed to write roughly 44k words, making slow but steady progress, mostly on Sundays, the only day of the week I really had to devote to the task. 87 weeks, 44k. In the eight weeks I spent in Paris, where I had every day of the week at my disposal –every day was Sunday!–I wrote another 30k. My goal going into this trip was to double my word count, and I might well have, had I not slacked off near the end of June. There were certain days that were devoted entirely to doing anything and everything except writing, like walking and eating and reading and museum-hopping, a fact for which I will not feel guilty, I will not feel guilty, I will not feel guilty. A combination of PERFECT weather and the siren call of those charming Parisian streets and the smell of delicious bread products wafting from literally every direction everywhere I went all the time ohmygodgivemeabaguette, made it nearly impossible to sit inside at my desk. So I’d take my notebook and head out, and often I never pulled it out of my bag. “I’ll write tomorrow!” turned into “I’ll write when it’s rainy and I don’t mind staying in!” which meant that the three straight weeks of glorious, mid-60s temperatures and clear blue skies Paris had in June saw little to no pen-to-paper or fingers-to-keyboard action.

One more time, with feeling: I will not feel guilty.

Could I have pushed myself to write more? Of course. I could’ve locked myself in my apartment and not gone to Ladurée, like, fifteen times. But sometimes finding a balance doesn’t mean that everything gets an equal share. The balance that worked for me towards the end skewed less in favor or writing, and more in favor of soaking up Paris. And while I might not have been as diligent as I was for the first half of the trip with writing substantial amounts every single day, I know for a fact that Paris worked its magic on me and that the trip was (of course) a success. Seeing the street where my main character lives, attending auctions at Sotheby’s, absorbing the specific sounds and rhythms of daily life in Paris –what the call button on the bus sounds like, the rip of paper at the fromagerie as they wrap up a block of cheese, the throaty way they pronounce their ‘r’s–and playing Anthropologist and observing Parisians in their natural habitat was integral to the writing process. I wasn’t just eating all of the buttery carbs the city had to offer, I was eating all of the buttery carbs the city had to offer in the name of book research.

But in all seriousness, the novel is taking shape; a new shape, in some parts, but it’s all making sense and I think I am in a really good spot now going forward. The entire process is so beautiful, was even more beautiful in, and because of, Paris. I’ve relaxed into the story in much the same way I relaxed into Paris. I’m excited to keep writing with those eight weeks under my belt, because I know that experience isn’t even close to done giving me inspiration and direction yet.

Mostly, I want to give myself a little pat on the back for writing 75k words. I’ve never written that much on the same project or story, and it feels momentous. It feels real.

Sotheby’s

Sotheby's

Sotheby's

Last week I attended my second auction at Sotheby’s. Oh, did I not mention the first one? Back in May I went to an afternoon sale of Objets d’Art et Mobilier, where I got to wander around the building taking notes, feeling positively giddy that they let anyone (literally, anyone) attend any auction they want. Even silly American writers who aren’t going to bid on anything and are there for book research! I doubt they would have let me in the door had they known the premise of my book is that, in a nutshell, an employee was able to make off with fourteen pieces of art over the course of two years from their private sales division and no one caught on. Ahem. I promise I wasn’t casing the joint.

The first auction was to get my toes wet in preparation for the big evening sale I attended last week, Art Impressioniste et Moderne. I wanted to figure out how everything worked with the first, smaller sale, and get all my googly-eyed staring out of the way, so that I could attend the big auction and look cool, casual, and like I belonged. I’m not sure I was successful (when people are tossing around €8-12 MILLION on art, it’s hard to act unfazed), but having now attended two auctions I feel like a bit of an insider. The main attraction of the Art Impressioniste et Moderne sale was a painting by Amadeo Modigliani. Here’s a video Sotheby’s made prior to the sale about the painting of Paul Alexandre, Modigliani’s first patron:

Contrary to what I expected, and I think what the general perception of auctions in pop culture has lead us to believe, the auctioneer never moved at lightning speed. There was ample time for each lot, to allow for bids made by phone for the clients who were either international or wished to remain anonymous, bids in the room, and bids made online. Yes, you can bid on almost any Sotheby’s auction online. The auctioneer made having to juggle all those factors look effortless, unhurried. He was patient with each of the phone representatives (of whom he knew every name) as they tried to talk their clients into bidding higher. He slipped back and forth between French and unaccented English fluidly the entire sale. He cracked jokes! People in the got up and left whenever they felt like it, or crossed the aisle to talk to fellow bidders. I imagine the art world is small enough that everyone sort of knows everyone. Buyer’s representative, gallery owners, collectors, they all see enough of each other at these auctions that they almost become social events.

Auctions don’t play a major role in my book, but I needed access to the building to get enough of the details right, and while they let the general public attend auctions, I don’t know if they would have let me just wander in without a reason. So I took as many mental notes as possible; the stairs were different than I imagined them. The offices are all contained on one floor. The layout is different, the lobby doors swing open both ways and are heavy as hell. All of those little details that I wouldn’t have known had I not gone, and that I wanted to get right for the story.

It was one of the neatest experiences I’ve had since being here, and I really recommend going to an auction, if you can. Despite the myths surrounding them, there is no way you can scratch your nose or cough at an inopportune moment and end up buying a $3 million dollar sculpture. Everyone has to pre-register to bid, and they don’t hand out paddles to any old schmo.

Other Paris Details of Note: JAMAL arrives this afternoon! We are driving to Honfleur tomorrow morning, on the Normandy coast, and staying for the weekend. It’s considered “one of the cradles of Impressionism” and was the birthplace to painter Eugène Boudin. I can’t wait! (Also, Driving on French highways. Going to be an adventure!)

Stuck on Words

Do you ever get stuck on a specific word? For a while, in conversation, everything was “fantastic.” The word lodged itself in my brain and became the descriptor for all manner of things when talking to people: “Oh, that restaurant was fantastic.” “The colors are just fantastic.” “That nap I took was fantastic.” Then, a few months ago while writing, I noticed lots of things were “curled”: his lip, their legs around each other, a thin wisp of cigarette smoke. And right now, the words “oily” and “ineluctable” have been bouncing around my head, begging for release. His motives are oily, another character makes an ineluctable judgment. Should I be worried? Is it totally normal and some creative divine intervention that sends these words to me to fixate on until I can find a suitable spot for them in the story? Or is it just my brain’s laziness in using the same word for everything (really, is everything fantastic?)? Is this too deep for a Monday?

It reminds me of a line from “Dead Poet’s Society.” Have you seen it?

So avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys – to woo women – and, in that endeavor, laziness will not do.

Pink Paris Sky

You asked how the writing was going…

mar21_quotable

So she let him in, and he walked behind her, his footfalls on the worn treads of the stairs echoing hers as they climbed the narrow spiral to her door, a call and response like prayer. His hand on her shoulder as she found her key, his head hung low to the swath of skin exposed at the back of her neck, her hair pulled forward over one shoulder. They slipped inside and out of their clothes, his mouth finding hers, a question that begged to be answered, and she responded eagerly.

The automatic light on the landing clicked off, dropping the stairwell into darkness, a rich, heavy quiet that filtered down the banisters and sunk against the cold stone on the ground floor.

…And as quietly as she’d told him to come, she told him now to go. The city outside was kicking to life, the pink sky settling between the houses and avenues, the silence abating as the first windows became illuminated, rectangles of yellow breaking the surface of the dawn, picture frames of people starting their day. He pulled on his coat and was gone. The air shifted with his absence, adjusting to the lack of him, more noticeable to her than the steady, low breath against her shoulder had been as he’d slept.

It’s not new and it’s far from perfect or polished, but I wanted to share this little passage with you, mostly to keep myself accountable and to prove that all of the deep, angsty expositing I do is actually in pursuit of something real. I’m doing it. I’m writing this book.

 photo via

Setting Goals

jan17writing

Somewhere around six months in to the time that I’ve been writing this novel of mine (since September 2012, according to my earliest saved document on my computer. Oh my god time flies! What the hell!) I came to realize that it is completely unmanageable to me to approach it as: WRITE THE ENTIRE NOVEL IN ONE SITTING OKAY GO. Rome wasn’t built in a day, good things come to those who wait, a watched pot never boils (does that one apply?), etc etc etc. Patience is a virtue at which I’ve never been particularly adept, so the intense frustration at not being able to make words appear on the page as quickly as I wanted them to was counteracting all of my forward progress and was especially discouraging. That, on top of the already daunting task of pulling an entire novel from the depths of my brain. So, you know, I totally understand why writers are depicted as tortured souls a lot of the time. And alcoholics. (Gin!)

But I’ve been setting little milestones for myself, little tangible goals to work towards and cross off (or accidentally light on fire…) so as not to get overwhelmed. The idea came from this Instagram photo from Kate back in November 2012. It was so simple and yet so genius and completely changed the way I approached writing this novel: set a goal, a number. Suddenly it wasn’t about writing an entire book, writing 100k, it was about writing small, manageable chunks at a time. My brain could focus on individual parts and small conversations and details without worrying about the bigger (scarier) picture.

jan17writing2

I’ve made a goal to hit at least 50k by May 1st. That gives me a third of the year, four months, to write about 15k. Breaking it down, I need to write 3,750 words a month, or 938 words a week, or 134 a day. A totally realistic way to look at it, yes?. And some days I don’t write my 134, but others I may bang out 500. It evens out, but at least I’m being kept on track. I’m accountable to those little pink post-its, as nuts as it sounds.

I’m curious, how do you manage goals? Are you working towards something that seems overwhelming? When it doubt, post-its!

PS. There’s a new link in the header menu to all these novel-related posts. 

Moodboard

moodboard_dec11

1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 / 6

This is what the inside of my head has looked like recently. Also this: the first piece of my novel I’ve ever shared. Consider it an early Christmas present from me to you (please be gentle).

And although he couldn’t recognize it at the time, this would be the moment he’d recall most frequently, as he slithered home with each stolen piece of art: this moment as he stood in his brightly lit office, assuming the sensation he felt inside of him as he watched Antoine coyly and modestly take credit for closing the sale he, Robert, had laid all the groundwork for, was pride, to realize only later had actually been jealousy in its most poisonous form.

Quotable

quotable_oct24

She is last spring’s art history graduate…She spends her day reading The Art Newspaper, answering the phone, and saying “Can I help you?” in a tone of voice intended to cause window-shoppers to flee. One reason she is defensive is to fend off the rhetorical question from browsers: “Who buys this stuff?” She has been instructed as to which classes of people to be explicitly rude to: artists wanting to have their slides reviewed, student groups, women with large hats, cheap handbags, or who arrive in groups larger than two…Snub her as she subs you. She is not the charming and welcoming Charlotte York character in Sex and the City, who worked in an upscale gallery and actually was allowed to talk to customers and solicit new artists.

You know when you read something that is so specific and poignant that it feels as though it was written just for you? That’s how I felt when I read that quote from Don Thompson’s “The $12 Million Stuffed Shark (The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art)” the other morning waiting for the bus. “That’s my protagonist!” I thought. “That’s my Mirette!” There she was, a full (though admittedly more brusque) portrait at the end of a chapter on the role of art dealers in contemporary art sales. It was magic. She exists somewhere else besides my brain.

What are you reading?

photo from this day